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Laramie Movie Scope:
500 Nations

Documentation of an inconvenient truth and an appeal to collective conscience

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1995) Some Americans continue to call for "taking America back" to its inspirational "golden past." Only if you disregard everyone's point of view - African Americans, Native Americans, new immigrants (including Irish and Italians), Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Catholics, Muslims, women, to name the most obvious victims of harmful prejudices - other than that of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males can you honestly say American history under the US Constitution has at any time provided an era of which one could be proud enough to return to.

Otherwise, there should be a sense of shame, for there hasn't been even a decade in which "liberty and justice for all" has applied; disgracefully this country hasn't even come close to rising to its idealistic standard of equality for all people within its borders. As another documentation of this inconvenient truth and an appeal to collective conscience, an eight-part TV-documentary mini-series, hosted by Kevin Costner and narrated by Gregory Harrison, directed by Jack Leustig (who co-wrote the script with Roberta Grossman, Lee Miller, and others), relates from behind the eyes of Native Americans some of the histories of the 500 nations of indigenous peoples, who spoke some 300 languages, long before the arrival of Europeans on these shores half a millennium ago.

The most recent research indicates that the earliest ancestors of whom we now know as Indians or Native Americans first came to the American continents about 18,000 years ago. The filmmakers take us through computer-generated "virtual realities of ancient Indian worlds," showing us the architecture, artifacts, artworks of civilizations long capable of developing their own agriculture, networks of trade routes, mathematics, astronomy, and religion.

Through interviews with descendants, such as Bill Day, Jake and Judy Swap, Tall Oak, and personal histories retold through the voices of actors - such as Edward James Olmos, Patrick Stewart, Timothy Bottoms, and Graham Greene - the dead are resurrected.

The end of major engagements between native peoples and the US government at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is chosen for beginning the series. The 7th Cavalry, after disarming a band of Lakota under Big Foot, who was ill with pneumonia, encircled the camp before opening fire with rifles and Hotchkiss guns, killing at least 150 men, women, and children; 49 wounded were carted away to an agency church, with a Christmas banner proclaiming "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men."

Each nation had its own creation myth, but they all lived in a Garden for centuries before being expelled by white men. The Anasazi, the ancestors of pueblo peoples - including the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes - initially lived in pit houses dug into the earth, appropriate to the southwestern climate and terrain; they traded turquoise with Mexico. Before 1800 the Cahokia constructed enormous mounds and an extensive trade network that converged on the largest settlement in what would become the United States, established along the Mississippi River, in what is now Illinois near St Louis.

The impressive ruins of Palenque in southern Mexico attest to the former grandeur of the Maya; internal conflict exhausted the civilization, leaving the cities abandoned to the jungles. Among the empires that rose and fell in a cycle of creation and destruction, the Aztec in the Valley of Mexico, built Tectihuacan and its pyramids. After making conquests of the various city-states on its periphery, taking tribute in slaves and taxes, the empire was defeated and crushed, as if by fulfillment of a prophecy, by the formidable Spanish Conquistadors in their armor and armed with guns under Cortez, who also shrewdly united the Aztec's enemies, slaughtering and then infecting the once mighty nation with small pox in 1520.

Earlier in December 1492, Christopher Columbus with his three ships landed on the island of what is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which he named Española. When Columbus's flagship the Santa Maria was grounded, the leader of the Taino directed his people to rescue the sailors and their supplies. The chief's kindness was repaid with carnage in November 1493 when Columbus returned to conquer the Taino, forcing the Indians to provide food for his men and labor for gold in mines. Following epidemics and famine, Enrique organized a rebellion against the Europeans; fourteen years later he negotiated a treaty with Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest sympathetic to the cruelties inflicted upon the native people. Nevertheless, by the 17th century the Taino had become extinct.

Invading by way of the Gulf of Florida, Hernando De Soto in 1539 plundered villages and enslaved natives on his march northward through the Timucua territory, in search of gold and silver, despoiling and spreading diseases. After further depredations but before his death in 1542, De Soto's men had encountered the Coosa chiefdom, the Mobilian tribe, and the Natchez, who chased the weakened army of Spaniards down the Mississippi River, precipitating their departure in July 1543.

On three voyages, seeking the Northwest Passage, the English sea captain Martin Frobisher initially encountered the Inuit (aka Eskimos) at Baffin Island near the Arctic Circle in 1576; they did not welcome him on his third visit.

Contact between Europeans and Native Americans produced a clash of cultures, often resulting in contraction of the indigenous peoples' land and liberties. The Powhatan Confederacy of 30 small nations along the Eastern seaboard watched warily in 1607 as Capt John Smith led colonists in establishing Jamestown. The story of his being rescued by Pocahontas is most likely pure fiction. Raising the cash crop of tobacco and needing to expand their farmlands, once again the newcomers resorted to violence against their neighbors.

Farther north at Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1621; they suffered sickness and starvation during the first harsh winter. In the spring, those who survived were greeted with the generosity of Massasoit Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, forming a peace treaty and alliance with the Indians.

But the Thanksgiving celebrations were to cease after Massasoit's death when his son King Phillip reacted to the repression of his people - denied practices of their customs and observations of their traditions, under pressure of religious rules and conversions to Christianity - by rising to war in 1676. Outmatched by the English weaponry, Wampanoag women and children were massacred and burned inside their wigwams; King Phillip's head was severed and put on public display for twenty years.

Elsewhere in the interior of the continent during the 1600s, French and English traders with the increasing demand for beaver furs to manufacture felt hats in Europe and England began affecting the traditional cycle of Indian life and undercutting ancestral cultural values by rewarding commercial hunting. The scarcity of game created competitive friction between tribes; the availability of alcohol cut deep into the social fabric; body paint made from lead and mercury poisoned the warriors.

Along the South Atlantic coast the Sewee in an ill-advised stratagem by the tribe's leaders to trade directly with England by setting out on a flotilla were drowned or taken into slavery. Before African slaves became the chief source of enslaved labor in the South, the southern colonies' economy depended on the commodities of Indian slaves, deerskins, and rum (largely sold to the Cherokees).

A caldron of wars in the 18th century between the French and English first and then the American Revolution, divided Indian loyalties. In 1763 Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, united tribes in the Great Lakes region into a rebellious alliance against the English, which nearly routed the occupiers from their lands until their French allies abandoned the territory and the commanding general of British forces in North America, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, employed germ warfare with blankets to infect the natives with small pox.

In what would become the state of New York, according to Iroquois legend the Great Peacemaker (a Huron, some claimed by virgin birth), along with Hiawatha, founded from five warring nations - the Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca - the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederation, giving the clans a great law of moral teachings and organizing principles, which became the oldest democracy in America. Benjamin Franklin's political thinking was inspired by the alliance's example.

However, during the American Revolution, a civil war erupted when factions split over support for the British versus the colonists; Gen George Washington sent an army of 5,000 men to quell the uprising against settlers, resulting in the destruction of most of the Iroquois towns (including those favoring the Americans) and shrinking the surviving population into reservation islands.

By means of "battles and dubious treaties" more lands were grabbed from Indians. At the same time Christian missionaries undermined traditional values and beliefs of those defeated. A prophet Tenskwatawa arose among the Shawnee, preaching a renaissance and return to the old ways as the only salvation for his people, while his brother Tecumseh followed a vision of militant resistance ("The Americans will not stop until they have taken all our lands"), urging an alliance against the expanding white settlements. But once again, the Indians with another ally, the British, suffer ignominy when the War of 1812 ends in the Americans' favor.

Another five Indian nations in the South, dominated by the Cherokee, opt for assimilation with the whites, which receives official sanction by the American government. Unfortunately, the civilized efforts on the part of the Indians are "marred by racism and greed" for land and gold. While President Andrew Jackson passively refuses to provide protection, Congress in 1830 passes the "bitter betrayal" of the Indian Removal Act, demanding the nations move beyond the Mississippi River.

Major Ridge, a Cherokee, argues that their land had been titled to them from the living God. The first to go are the Choctaws, costing 2,000 lives; next the expulsion of the Creek in 1836 reduces the nation by one third. Finally, after the diplomatic efforts of John Ross (the first elected leader of the Cherokees and who had served with Jackson) had been exhausted - his victory in the US Supreme Court, ruling that the Cherokees are a sovereign nation, is disregarded by President Jackson - in 1838, ordered to move to the Oklahoma territory, under threat of Gen Winfield Scott's troops, sixteen thousand Cherokees begin "the Trail of Tears."

In 1772 Spanish missionaries arrived on the California coast where they encountered the peaceful Chumash. Using "whatever means necessary" to convert the heathens, the padres built their missions up and down California with coerced Indian labor; revolts were crushed mercilessly, producing a "genocidal death rate." (When I studied the Spanish missions in school, including visiting several of the locations, I was never introduced to this atrocious aspect of the state's history.)

The gold rush flooded the interior with miners, who declared "open season on Indian people," referred to a "diggers." Indian slavery was legalized. Only a third of the original population survived the onslaught.

When the Spanish fled in 1680, leaving behind their horses, the nomadic nations of the Great Plains transformed their livelihood of hunting buffalo by the adoption of a horse culture. Yet another discovery in 1858 of gold at Pike's Peak in Colorado brought another invasion of white men, soon followed by military forts to protect the newcomers and relocation of Indians to reservations.

While some chose to fight for their homelands, others such as chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe agreed to peacefully accept protection in exchange for their lands. Though White Antelope had personally received a medal of peace from President Lincoln, he and his people, as the result of false rumors and another broken treaty, became innocent victims of the Sand Creek massacre (over 500 killed) in November 1868, butchered by US troops (taking over 100 scalps) under Col John Chivington, who had been an abolitionist minister and Civil War hero.

Four years after Black Kettle and others escaped the carnage, Gen George Armstrong Custer ("woman killer") found and dispatched the remnants. Others hearing of the betrayals, the broken promises, the meager rations on the reservations, tried to resist, so the federal government encouraged the slaughter of the buffalo herds, depriving the Indians of their principal source of food and hides. The Kiowa fought futilely to rescue their way of life from the buffalo hunters and the cavalry.

To the north, assembling from various reservations into a great unity encampment along the Little Bighorn River in 1876, thousands of Indians responded to the call of Sitting Bull; Custer attacked them by surprise. The American public demanded reprisals for the "massacre" of the cavalry.

A few years later in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon, after years of peaceful coexistence with white settlers, cattlemen coveted the land on which the Nez Perce lived. Once more soldiers forced the Indians out, but Chief Joseph craftily retreated with his people toward Sitting Bull's camp in Canada, all the while under pursuit. One day short of safety, the Nez Perce were attacked unawares, defeated (Chief Joseph famously said, "I will fight no more forever"), relocated to Oklahoma, and eventually through Joseph's diplomacy returned to a different location in Oregon.

Near the Mexican border, where for years whites passing westward had been unharmed, a fabrication against the Apaches resulted in military action and orders to move onto the wasteland of San Carlos reservation. In the early 1860s, Cochise led a guerrilla war of resistance and negotiated settlement.

When that agreement expired, Geronimo, whose family was slaughtered, continued to fight for freedom, but was forced to give himself up in 1886 to avoid extermination of his small band of warriors, women, and children. Gen Miles, who had defeated Chief Joseph, promised Geronimo a short custody followed by release onto a reservation; instead, another deception confined the Apache leader and his followers in prison until his death in 1909.

Most reservations were barren lands, "virtual concentration camps" on which a network of corrupt government agents, given charge of providing rations and provisions, made huge profits for themselves while leaving the inhabitants in "abject poverty." Eastern reformers, assuming the native peoples needed to be assimilated into white culture because their own was backward, in combination with avaricious western land developers, created an allotment system of small plots of land for farming, denying Indians their traditional communities. In the cruelest policy, further stripping them of their culture and erasing their language, children were removed from their parents to be taught white ways only in boarding schools.

The great irony, of course, is that Europeans came to America in hopes of finding freedom and tolerance for themselves, but once they got a foothold were unwilling to share or grant the same privileges to others.

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Copyright © 2011 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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